Wednesday, April 7, 2010


In January, 1842, a young English novelist, sailed for America. He and his wife were to have their first vacation. They would be in the United states for six months; visiting up and down the eastern seaboard, from Boston to the deep south. It was to be, typically of the man, a working vacation. Having begun his professional life as a journalist, he intended to write a record of his impressions, and eventually a book. He did just that. The book was to be a celebration of American democracy and egalitarianism, of a nation and a society, unlike his own, if not wholly free, at least, in principle, not crippled by the dead weight of custom, aristocracy, patronage and industrial exploitation. The novelist was something of a radical, certainly a reformer, and he was convinced that America was everything Great Britain was not.

This was not just a novelist though. At the age of only thirty, this was the most successful novelist in the English speaking world. In fact, he was, and still is, the greatest novelist in the English language. Charles Dickens came to America convinced that he would love America, and from the moment he arrived, he was made to understand that the feeling was mutual.

Dickens wrote that Americans were "friendly, hospitable, kind, frank... warm-hearted, fervent, and enthusiastic." It was natural that he should find us so. We adored him. It is difficult now to fully appreciate the extraordinary position in which the young writer found himself, even then, after only half a dozen books. There had never been, nor would there be, until perhaps Chaplin, a celebrity like him. (In her brief biography of him, novelist Jane Smiley makes an excellent case for the argument that Dickens rather invented the modern celebrity.) From the moment he arrived in Boston, Dickens was feted, feasted, introduced to every notable of the day. His likeness was everywhere: in every newspaper and magazine, from soap to cigar-boxes. He could not leave his hotel without being recognized, shaken by the hand, made much of by every passing stranger on the street, it seemed. It must have been both overwhelming and annoying, but it was also, I don't doubt, deeply gratifying, in a very unEnglish way.

The novelist and his wife made it as far as Hartford before the glow began to flicker. Dickens made some remarks on a subject very much on his mind, copyright, and the well-established custom of American piracy of English authors. The press, as a body, turned. Suddenly, the newspapers were full of indignation and acrimony. Dickens, it was said, was "no gentleman." Dickens was stung, but he did not back down. He was adamant: copyright was a necessity for the artist, a duty in a civilized nation, and, in the absence of copyright, publishers were no better than thieves. He was denounced as a scoundrel. Worse was to come.

In the end, Dickens saw more of America than he, or his hosts, had intended. He saw, and heard, much that he did not like. He saw poverty, gross politics, capitalism at it's cruelest, and a crudeness he had not anticipated. Worst, he saw slavery, and condemned it for the eradicable stain that it was. The book he wrote when he got home, American Notes, was by no means the book he had intended, nor did America much like it. The novel he wrote next, Martin Chuzzlewit, with it's scathing satire of American society and manners, America liked even less. It was a long time before Charles Dickens came back for another visit, and it was a long time before he would have been welcome.

By the time he did return, on his first great reading tour in America, Dickens was not so much forgiven, as irresistible. By his last visit, the most famous novelist in the world, the most famous novelist in history, already prematurely old, and ill from his labors, Charles Dickens was... unassailable.*

Much might be and has been made of Dickens complicated affection for this country, and ours for him. I touch on it here only to provide a context for the question that concerns me just at the moment. What was it that Charles Dickens felt obliged first to say and then to defend that so outraged us? Why did what we would now call the media, turn so fiercely on the young novelist it had, but a breath before, been praising so extravagantly? Why did so seemingly a pedestrian area of the law as copyright cause such a furor in the first place?

Plagiarism is a word that has lately gained a weird, new and unexpected opprobrium; not the act, you understand, but the accusation. Much is being made in artistic and critical circles just now of the "good old days" of literary license, supposedly before the arrival of lawyers, and guilds, fact-checkers and copyright. Plagiarism, it is argued, is a journalistic invention, an affectation of the newspaperman, the petty bureaucrats of academia, and, like copyright itself, it is but a tool of the publishers, the lawyers, and the capitalists, used to control and dictate to the artist, to the protect property rights of all those who seek to exploit art for their own gain, at the expense of creative freedom, innovation and the development of a more technologically and artistically democratic literature. To be accused of plagiarism nowadays is to be proved an innovator. Collage, it seems, is king. To defend copyright is to sound hopelessly compromised. Another word has likewise recently been turned on its head, and now to "appropriate" is not to take that which does not belong to you, but to simply put something otherwise inert and useless to a new and better use. In a culture of such uncontrollable energy, fractious interdependence and diversity as ours, the only honest artistic response, it seems, is to abandon the very idea of authorship in favor of what is, after all, it is being argued, an older, less rigidly western, less culturally elitist paradigm of... what exactly? Anonymous and communal craftsmanship? Swashbuckling? What?

Nostalgia is the falsification of the past in order to support and justify an intentional misinterpretation of present circumstances. Nostalgia is, in every age, and in every argument, the favorite tool of the demagogue. Now we learn that literature, our literature, was once a perfect paradise of unattributed quotation, paraphrase and "appropriation," that, once, in days most regrettably long gone by, in the blissful absence of veracity, and contracts, artists flourished in blissful ignorance of petty restriction. From the ancients to Montaigne, at least, and down perhaps to even so late a date as Dickens, writers were owed nothing and owed nothing. Writers once, it seems, lived on air. Words fell from the sky like manna in the desert: whole sentences and paragraphs might be gathered by the armload, to nourish the chosen. In the lost democracy of this earlier innocence, apparently, authors gave away their labour for the love of literature and gleefully tore the pages from their books that they might be shared with anyone who might have need of them, or who might -- might -- put them to some new and better use.

Samuel Johnson wrote a most scathing letter to a would-be patron of his great dictionary who, having neglected to provide the slightest actual support when Johnson worked for years in a garret to produce that mighty volume, claimed after and in company to be numbered among Johnson's earliest and greatest benefactors. Johnson's letter to Lord Chesterfield is a model of restraint, considering what he might have said, or done, had he met his Lordship in the street. But it would behoove the reader to remember what Johnson, dependent all his life on subscription, patronage, and fees, could not say, or do beyond the letter he wrote. The writer, if not an aristocrat or otherwise "of independent means," in Johnson's day, risked everything, even in writing just as Johnson did.

Patronage nowadays is a rare thing. To the extent it may still be counted among the means by which a writer might live while writing largely as he or she pleases, it exists perhaps only in the institution of academic tenure. It seems to me unsurprising then that the vast majority of those who now most loudly cry down copyright as an antiquated curb on their creativity, and even simple attribution and or acknowledgement as tedious and inauthentic, should shout from the sanctuary of academic cinctures.

Charles Dickens undid his hosts when, very politely mind you, he suggested that, friendly as they were, "hospitable, kind," etc. as he found us, we were none the less taking money from his pockets and bread from his table. In calling to task the capitalists, publishers, pirates, jobbers and "gentlemen" who felt themselves entitled to steal from their workers and betters, Dickens spoke not just for himself, but for the dignity of the artist, and the individual, as well as the integrity of his work. Even being robbed in America, Dickens was already well on his way, at thirty, to being rich. Even without America, for a time, he became perhaps the most rewarded writer in history. Yet if he stood to gain little at the time by his insistence, he never the less still had a great deal to lose. Already the much beloved "Boz," remember, he was not yet the financially secure Grand Old Man of Letters. (That really only came when he began to work himself to death, writing novels, editing magazines, and giving public readings.) If nothing else, his 1842 visit to America, proved to be a longer six months than he'd bargained for.

But Dickens was an idealist. His disappointments were not simply personal. He felt obliged to stand for something in which he fervently believed, just as, elsewhere in his journey, he felt obliged to decry what he found to be shoddy, false, inhuman and evil.

There is an irony so obvious here that I hesitate to elaborate it further. Forgive me then for going on so, but it frankly astonishes me to see bright and brave young writers, all dependent on day jobs, eagerly endorsing their own economic and ethical undoing in their eagerness to embrace not just the wonderful freedom of this new technology -- the very thing that allows me to natter on this way day after day without curb or caution -- but also the nitwitted theorizing of the literary leisured class that would have writers do without the security provided not by the salaried platform of our public academics, but by the again unpopular conviction of writers like Charles Dickens, that the writer is owed a living from his labor, if he can make it honestly, and the respect he shows. So to disrespect not only the the achievements and sanctity of the past, and the history of art, but the sweated labor of Daniel Defoe, the poverty of Herman Melville, the sad and wretched anonymity of Edgar Allen Poe, to no better purpose than faddish, theoretical, cultural currency, is not just pissing on headstones, it is dancing into an open grave.

The day I see a professor giving away free copies of his new book on the Ave. is the day I will take such gaseous theories seriously, and the very day I will accept the sincerity of all such manifestos.

*For the story of Dickens in America, I owe acknowledgement to, and most heartily recommend the greatest of Dickens' 20th Century biographers, Edgar Johnson.


  1. "The day I see a professor giving away free copies of his new book on the Ave. is the day I will take such gaseous theories seriously, and the very day I will accept the sincerity of all such manifestos."

    Amen, Brother! The next person who wants "free content" needs a lesson in Economics 101-A.

  2. Said one man who makes it to another.